Embrace Philosophy for Meaningful Education

March 19, 2016

Embrace Philosophy for Meaningful Education

Farouk A. Peru

Farouk A. Peru is a human being in the world. That is where his discourse begins and ends. His thought systems may be found at www.farouk.name and he tweets @farouk_a_peru.

Before I even began my foray into Additional Maths in Form Four, I was already told how formidable it would be. That was probably not a good mindset to start with.

Then one fine day, my teacher came into class and discussed differentiation (a process in calculus) out of nowhere. I was lost. My mind could not process the idea despite reading the brief introduction in the textbook.

I do not blame my teacher in any way as she had a class of nearly 40 students and a tight schedule to keep. However, from that day up till the day I closed my maths books for the last time after A-levels, I had severe difficulties with this subject.

Then in the first year of university, for the first time in my life, I had access to books on philosophy. It only took a few pages from a book on the philosophy of mathematics for me to understand the idea behind calculus. Suddenly the exercises with which I had problems the past five years clicked into place. That was my discovery of the power of philosophy.

Farouk Peru, this is my recommendation–Din Merican

According to a pilot study of schools in the UK conducted by Durham University, the teaching of philosophy in schools dramatically improves pupils’ maths and English skills. In addition to that, pupils from relatively more deprived backgrounds have found even more benefits in studying philosophy and found great interest in concepts such as truth, justice and knowledge. All pupils under this scheme found their math skills improved in just two months, on average. Quite a remarkable achievement indeed.

Given my aforementioned experience with the philosophy of mathematics, I find this very unsurprising. Philosophy is the missing element in the Malaysian education system. However, the solution is not simply to unload Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy onto our students.

This turnkey style solution would only serve to bore the students even more. While Russell’s work is remarkably comprehensive, it is also toilsome reading. For bright young minds, I highly recommend Bryan McGee’s The Story Of Philosophy. It has more pictures (which is by no means insulting but gives a more holistic reading experience) and gives a better correlation with history. This is the approach we must take with a philosophical education.

A great misconception people tend to have with philosophy is that it is dauntingly academic and must be taught in the chronology found in its historical accounts like Russel’s. That is simply not the case.

On the contrary, it can also help if the subject is taught in reverse order, that is, starting from contemporary philosophy working its way back to the Greeks or even before. The key here is relevance.

When the students see that philosophy is intertwined with current events, they would then be able to appreciate that it is not a “pie in the sky” type subject. For example, the current American political drama in the run-up to the presidential elections can be reflected in its political philosophy, especially related to foreign policy.

Another element we need to think about before introducing philosophy in schools is the very idea of standardised testing. Philosophy tends to resist this form of examination most strongly.

I would go so far as to say that philosophy is the anti-thesis of standardised testing. I would highly recommend teaching this subject without examination. Instead, see it as an investment to produce the skill of thinking which can then be applied in other, most test worthy subjects. This would make the subject a lot more attractive to students.

The teaching of philosophy can also help produce a coherent national identity. In our case, we lack huge collections of tomes. Therefore, we need to see philosophy beyond the bounds of philosophical tomes.

Malay philosophy lacks long academic treatise (with perhaps the exception of Malay Sufism) but makes up for it with its vast oral culture. These oral transmissions need to be collected and formulated to form a Malay philosophy.

Along with this, writings by the first generations of Chinese and Indian immigrants into Malaya and the native philosophies of the Sabah and Sarawak people can form a true Malaysian philosophy.

These writings can include fiction-based philosophy as well (like the works of Sartre and Camus). This will make the subject of philosophy itself far more interesting as it relates to our national identity.

There is a reason Malaysia is currently in intellectual doldrums and that is our current socio-political milieu does not find it expedient to produce thinkers. Thinkers would end up questioning the status quo. Nevertheless, there are “street thinkers” who exist outside academia. However, without the teaching of formal philosophy in schools, we would never be able to awaken a national atmosphere of intellectualism.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.



7 thoughts on “Embrace Philosophy for Meaningful Education

  1. My friend Farouk A. Peru has a big point. Philosophy is referred to as wisdom in the Quran. It is belief rationalised. I know that Imam Ghazzali (of powerful influence in Malaysia) was the one who killed philosophy in the Muslim world , having criticised Greek philosophy as deviant. There is no department of philosophy in any of the universities in Malaysia. (I stand to be corrected, of course.) So I suggested to a USM lecturer to include philosophy in his sociology department. He has only one student! — Kassim Ahmad

  2. Reading philosophy (and literature) gives a person deeper insights to man’s conduct, thoughts, motivations and machinations. It develops a questioning mind and sharper thinking which is largely antithesis to religions and State imposed addicts. Some years back I read the book, ‘Philosophy for kids’ (I might have gotten the title wrong), where in one essay this question is put: Can you jump into the same river twice?

    The answer given is No because the river one jumps into the first time is not quite the same as the one he jumps the second time. The “sameness” is not there as the river never remains static with instantaneous changes taking place constantly – the ripples on the surface, the flow of the undercurrents, wind direction impact, pebbles and sediment shifts, addition or subtraction of twigs and leaves (and trash) etc.

    Extend this logical thinking into the domains of religion and State and one will get to see the necessity and usefulness or the outdated absurdity of some of the injunctions laid out. Take the call for morning prayers for instance. Some 50-70 years back it was common to see the loudspeakers from the mosques blaring the prayer time call. But with the advent of modern technological means, some of the mosques have ceased using the loudspeakers. But in rural settings you may still need them. If you are very pious and highly disciplined you may not need the sound alert even if you live in the outskirt of the kampong because your acquired discipline will get you up and ready on the dot. You may also have the bigness of heart to concede the need for morning prayer calls to cater for others who may not have the same discipline that you have cultivated.

    Cutting of limbs and stoning to death were punishments for heinous crimes conceived in the 6-7th century. There were no governments then. Barbaric times and barbaric crimes might have needed such brutal punishments. But do we need such hudud laws for modern days when there are alternative means of punishment? How does the religiously pious and the philosophically religious see all these?

  3. Hawking Eye,

    A good comment. However, I doubt one could seriously consider adultery as a heinous or a barbaric crime, at any time in our history.

  4. 1. Mr. Hawking Eye laments the loud noise made by the call tp payer and barbaric Hudud Law that he connects to religion.
    2. In the first, he fails to put in its historical context. At that time there was no clock yet. Hence the necessity for the azan. Now when we have the clock, that is no longer necessary.
    3. In the second case, the so-called Hudud Law is a big mistake of misinterpretation by some scholars. It is not difficult to see that this goes against the very nature of God: being Merciful.
    3. Thirdly, he forgets that the Medinah Charter was the first written constitution in the world, giving birth to the first nation-state. Dato Din has kindly published verbatim this great Charter with my detailed comments.
    — Kassim Ahmad

  5. @ aitze

    I must agree with your observation that one could not seriously consider adultery as a heinous or a barbaric crime, at any time in our history.

    I suppose it is to provide for the sexual need of man and to enable procreation that the institution of marriage was founded. With more than every other person getting married, the sin of adultery still remains pretty high, both the visible and the undetected.

    Islam partly addresses this weakness of the flesh. Its solution – polygamy. The underlying principle may be that a man who has 2 to 4 wives – either simultaneously or one at a time – is less prone to adultery than a man with one wife or without any. But how and why did the concept of polygamy come about in Islam?

    During wars at Prohet Muhamad’s time a lot of men died fighting, leaving their wives widows and their children fatherless. The Prophet encouraged the unmarried and married men to marry these widows and give them a new life and succour. The Prophet’s intention was noble and addressed the specific need of the time which was to provide protection and livelihood for the hapless widows through the means of remarriage. But this specificity seems to have got expanded by the disciples of the Prophet after his death, to provide for multiplicity of wives under the umbrella of “affortability” This could be a case of disciples outsmarting the Master by promoting a polygamy agenda for purposes other than what the Prophet possibly intended.

  6. Inche Kassim, I am surprised that a learned man of your stature can twist my words to demonise my intent and reading of events. I never “lamented the loud noise made by the call to prayer”. I grew up in a condusive multiracial environment that included Suraus and Boyanese pondoks. The morning prayer calls never once bothered or irritated me. If anything, it was a wake up call for me as well, which came useful at times. I was just making an observation of changing times and the transition of mosques using loudspeakers for morning prayer calls as late as some 50-70 years back to doing away with this practise currently, mainly because of the alternative communications means the IT world provides.

    For many, spirituality still gives the hope for a saner man and saner world.

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